Close-up photo of three chrome knobs that control the range of a gas stoveAn obsession is a recurrent thought, impulse, or image that is pervasive and unwanted and causes distress. Individuals who experience obsessions typically feel as if they cannot control or stop these thought patterns or recurring images.

Understanding Obsessions

While obsessions may be described as recurring thoughts, they go beyond that and are intrusive, undesirable, and uncontrollable. An individual who experiences an obsession will find it difficult, even impossible, to make the particular thought or image go away, to the extent that anxiety and/or other distress is the result. In some cases, obsessions can be so pervasive as to be debilitating. Some common obsessions include the fear of contamination or germs, the fear of losing control in some way that leads to harm of the self or another person, superstitious thoughts about a particular number or color, thoughts relating to perfection or exactness, unwanted sexual thoughts, religious thoughts, and fears of getting a physical illness.

Obsessions may also be focused on other people, often romantic love interests. In such cases, an individual may experience obsessive thoughts about having to break up with a partner or a partner breaking up with them. They may be unable to stop considering the reasons a relationship ended or fixate on whether they have caused hurt or insult to a partner or other meaningful person in their life. An individual may also be preoccupied with a partner’s perceived infidelity, a condition the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) refers to as obsessional jealousy.

Stalking and erotomania—when a person experiences delusional beliefs about having a relationship with another person, often a celebrity or otherwise powerful individual—are often termed “obsession,” but having obsessive thoughts about another person is a separate experience from either of these.

Some people with obsessions may meet DSM-5 criteria for a diagnosis of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). OCD is characterized by the presence of obsessions and compulsions that are time-consuming or cause significant distress or impairment in functioning. The most recent estimates suggest that OCD affects approximately 1.2% of the United States population.

How Do Obsessions and Compulsions Differ?

Many people who have OCD experience both obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are intrusive thoughts, while compulsions are repetitive behaviors or mental acts an individual believes they must engage in, most often to decrease anxiety or prevent some dreaded event from occurring. Examples of common compulsions include hand washing, praying, checking multiple times to see if an appliance has been turned off, or turning door handles a fixed number of times to make certain they are locked, arranging items in a specific way, counting, and seeking reassurance repeatedly. In some cases, compulsions can take up so much time that they interfere with an individual’s ability to function.

How Can Obsessions Be Harmful?

By their definition, obsessions cause anxiety and distress. Individuals who experience a true obsession are troubled by it and feel as if they cannot make the obsessive thoughts go away, even though they have a strong desire to do so. They may experience feelings of fear and anxiety in addition to shame and embarrassment. They may also spend so much time focusing on their obsessional thinking that they become unable to function in a typical manner.

An individual’s obsession with another person can potentially create problems for that other person and the relationship in general, regardless of the type of relationship it is. Most obsessions about other people involve fears about the end of a relationship or about having caused hurt or insult in a relationship. To assuage these obsessive thoughts, an individual may repeatedly ask the other person about the state of the relationship, often seeking communication through various methods and persisting even when the other person has attempted to put their fears to rest. This may cause the other person to feel frustrated and angry and may even lead to the dissolution of the relationship. In extreme cases, an individual with obsessive thoughts about another person may unintentionally cause that person to feel threatened or harassed.

It is important to note that people who experience obsessions, even violent ones, typically do not act on these obsessions.

Obsessions and Stigma

Many people who experience a mental health issue have faced stigma or prejudice, and those who have obsessions are no different. When the concept of obsession is not well understood, people may fear “obsessive people,” for example.

One particular issue relevant to individuals who experience obsessions is the overuse of the terms “obsessed” and “OCD.” It is common to hear people say they are obsessed with a new television show or that they are “a little OCD” because they like their desk to be arranged in a specific way. In reality, these experiences are very common and do not represent actual obsessions—actual obsessions are not wanted, and those who experience them do not derive enjoyment from them.

The overuse of these terms may have the effect of minimizing the actual conditions and invalidating the experiences of people who have distressing or even debilitating obsessions. One helpful way to challenge this use of language may be to say in response, “Imagine you could not stop doing that.”


  1. America Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
  2. Bailey, E. (2008, July 11). The difference between obsessions and compulsion. HealthCentral. Retrieved from http://www.healthcentral.com/anxiety/c/22705/33582/compulsions
  3. Frequently asked questions about OCD. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://psychiatry.yale.edu/ocd/aboutocd/faqs.aspx
  4. Heapy, C. (2015, October 19). You can’t be “a little bit OCD” but your everyday obsessions can help end the condition’s stigma. Retrieved from http://theconversation.com/you-cant-be-a-little-bit-ocd-but-your-everyday-obsessions-can-help-end-the-conditions-stigma-49265
  5. Penzel, F. (n.d.). When people become obsessed with other people. Retrieved from http://beyondocd.org/expert-perspectives/articles/when-people-become-obsessed-with-other-people
  6. Raiola, A. (2016). Why you need to stop saying you’re “so OCD”. Retrieved from http://greatist.com/live/what-is-ocd-not-a-neat-freak
  7. Szymanski, J. (2016). What are common obsessions and compulsions? Retrieved from http://www.everydayhealth.com/anxiety-disorders/experts-common-obessions-and-compulsions.aspx

Last Updated: 01-24-2017

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